Tuesday, July 19, 2011

PROVENCE & CORSICA: Sun Spots in my Wines

Blindingly bright sun drenched vistas, warm air filled with aromas of lavender and rosemary, and the sense that the sea is not very far away is what comes to my mind. But its untapped potential that most wine writers mention about sunny Provence and the paradise isle of Corsica.  It is a shame really, because wine making has been part of these lands since at least 600BC.  It is easy for thirsty tourists to consider these wines as a natural extension of their cuisine, hand and glove. Little else but olives and resinous scrub can grow in their baked complex of poor soils. There's that minimal amount of rainfall that comes only in the winter, the fierce dry mistral winds that sweeping in from the northwest, and the constant light of the sun that would seem to make this place perfect for grapes.  The Greeks, and then the Romans certainly thought so.
Provencal Lavender

Provence stretches from Marseilles across the southern tip of France to the Italian border, and in this warm region red grapes dominate. Of its eight(8) major AOC's, Cotes de Provence is the largest producer and acreage; a non-contiguous swath, like a moth-eaten blanket, covering most of this mountainous region finished by the sea. Vines here get the minimum amount of water needed, are generally free of vineyard diseases, and receive about the maximum amount of sunshine(more than 3000 growing season hours) each year. If good wines are produced where the vines struggle, it is curious then that not many great wines come from this region. Much fought-over Provence was ravaged by late-19th century phylloxera, as was most of western Europe, and a lot of easy growing, undistinguished Carignan was slowly planted as a response.Today, Provence produces more the half of all the rose' wines made each year in France, and dark Mourvedere is now the regions most widely planted grape.

In the northwest sits Coteaux d'Aix-en-Provence AOC, producing sturdy red blends from Grenache, Cinsaut and Mouvedere, with other approved red Mediterranean varietals. Nearby Baux-de-Provence is the nations' first AOC to require all vineyards to be farmed bio-dynamically! East of Marseilles, Cassis AOC, principally a white wine appellation,  produces from its limestone soils quality wines from widely planted Clairette, Marsanne and Ugni Blanc grapes. Producing perhaps the regions only world-class wine is coastal Bandol AOC, whose age-worthy reds are a minimum 50% Mourvedere, and can offer perhaps one of the great expressions of the grape. Closer to the border with Italy, Bellet AOC, near Nice,  produces wines of all colors, but the best may be the whites it generates from the Italian Vermentino.

Today, Provence makes over 1000 kinds of wine(mostly blends & mostly rose's) from 13 approved grape varieties, with much of it consumed locally. Fourteen(14) of its consistently best producers are uniquely part of a Cru Class system ranking, the only region to do so outside of Bordeaux. Yet for all of its potential, Provence seems content to continue to produce volumes of simple wines that pair nicely with the regions farm to table cuisine served under the sun.

Corsica, which for much of its history belonged to Italy, is really no different than Provence, except that it is a volcanic island. Ajaccio, the western capital and home of Napoleon,  is a mountainous granite based AOC that is historically home to the indigenous, highly perfumed red Sciacarello.  It is typically the base of a blend, for rose' wines are prominent here too. In the north sits Corsica's first AOC, the well-known Patrimonio. This clay and limestone region is the home of Nielluccio, the other 'noble' Corsican red grape, producing full bodied dry wines.  Research suggests that rather than being indigenous, this grape is actually Sangiovese from Tuscany. On the extreme northern tip of the island is Cap de Corse AOC, renowned for centuries for its sweet dessert Muscat vin doux naturel. Esteemed wine writer Hugh Johnson pens that it may be among the best examples of sweet Muscat Blanc a' Petits Grains in the world.  The island also produces unfortified, still Muscats, and its most widely planted white grape. Vermentino,  also shows Italian influence.
Historically, Algeria had been a big market for the wines of Corsica. Cultivation of new vineyards spiked dramatically following Algeria's independence from France in the early 1960's, and the islands wines became more about quantity than quality. In the 1980's the influence of the European Union began to reduce yields here and renew efforts to modernize for more quality wine production. Unfortunately, only about 15% of Corsicas' vineyards are of AOC quality today, yielding only about 5% of the islands total production.  It is estimated that about 90% of all wines here are blends, the best of which contribute to the volume of Corsicas' Vin de Pays de Me'diterrane'e country wines.
Even with the few pearls of great wine to be found in Provence and Corsica, even as they easily sit in the warmth of untapped potential, I still would not really mind being a thirsty tourist consuming fresh, regional wines in either of these sunny spots.  Cheers!

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